Education Guru Tries to Close Latino Education Gap

There is no better time for a Latino to be representing the Department of Education, now that recently released data shows Latinos are lagging behind others when it comes to getting college degrees.

This gap will pose a formidable obstacle for Eduardo Ochoa, assistant secretary of education for the Department of Education. He is led by this lofty White House goal: 51 percent of Americans should hold a college degree by 2020. That will only happen if at least 5.5 million Latinos earn degrees in the next eight years, according to a report by Excelencia in Education.

“We were one of the best educated countries in the world when it came to college completion,” said Ochoa, a native of Buenos Aires. “We are not currently and we want to get back to that position.”

These lofty goals aren’t likely to be met, say education analysts, no matter how good the intention. They say the gap has not suddenly emerged. Instead it has grown for decades, a sign they say, that indicates that federal and state governments have not historically devoted enough resources to address the educational disparity.

“We are not putting our money where our mouth is as a nation,” said Antonio Flores, president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

While more Latinos are getting degrees, their pace lags far behind others. In 2011, 21% of Latinos had an associate degree or higher, compared with 57% of Asians, 44% of whites and 30% of blacks, reported Excelencia in Education.  

Ochoa, who was tapped by President Barack Obama for the post in 2010, indicates that the White House is looking to remove some hurdles – including cost – that prevents Latinos from getting degrees. He points to the proposals announced by the president that would increase the amount of money available for Perkins loans to $8 billion (from $1 billion) and start a $1 billion grant competition for schools that keep college costs down, similar to the Race to the Top program for elementary and secondary schools. But these plans would require approval from Congress.

Education insiders say they have heard these types of proposals before.

“I don’t know if the results will be dramatically different from what other administrations have tried in the past,” said Flores. “The reality is that there has been a gradual erosion of institutions and now we are in a crisis mode. We have neglected our education system for too long.”

While the White House proposals don’t focus exclusively on Latinos, the group is certainly on the radar. The reason? Economics. Results of narrowing this educational gap will trickle into the overall economic state of the country, analysts say. Between 2010 to 2020, Latinos will account for three-quarters of the growth of the labor force, according to new projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Addressing the attainment gap will take more than the efforts of Ochoa, who has been the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Sonoma State University, and initiatives proposed by the federal government.

“I don’t think any one person or organization alone can put it all on their back and make a major change,” said Deborah Santiago, vice president of Excelencia in Education an advocacy group that released the study showing the degree attainment gap. “I do think Dr. Ochoa working with organizations at regional state and local levels can address issues that will make a concerted difference.”

But as far as pushing to alleviate educational disparity, it may help to have Ochoa keeping the issue on the table.

"I think I have some understanding and awareness of cultural differences of Latino students and families,” Ochoa said. “Those understandings help, I think, to give a better perspective."

Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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